Chris Harrison showed up at the biggest audition of his life looking like a mess. Yes, on this particularly trying day back in 2001, the man viewers now know as the clean-shaven, sharp-suited host of ABC's The Bachelor actually had bags under his telegenic blue eyes. His shirt wasn't pressed, and he smelled a little like sour milk. Producers barely looked at him before saying, ''Forget it. Next!''
But then his agent called and begged them to give her client a second chance: His wife had a baby just a few days before, she explained, and Harrison had been up all night with the newborn. This piqued the producers' interest. ''They wanted a family man,'' Harrison explains. ''They didn't want the guy who seemed like he was hitting on everybody.'' Really, producers were seeking an antidote to The Bachelor's built-in ick factor: 25 women competing for one man. Harrison returned, freshly pressed, and nailed it. ''We needed someone who could relate to the Bachelor and had a sympathetic ear for the women,'' executive producer Mike Fleiss says. ''Chris was that guy.''
Harrison has been that guy for eight years now, a reliable constant in The Bachelor's shifting sea of grand gestures, whirlwind proposals, and dramatic on-camera dumpings. Says the host, sipping one of his favorite cabernets in a Hollywood restaurant, ''When crazy stuff happens, it's just like, 'Send Harrison out there, he'll figure out what to do.''' His ability to handle drama on the fly will be on full display this year: In addition to hosting and producing red-carpet coverage during awards season for TV Guide Network, he'll be kicking off the 14th season of The Bachelor on Jan. 4, when pilot/Bachelorette rejectee Jake Pavelka will be the one handing out the roses.
Though he's the comforting, familiar face of America's favorite reality romance series, Harrison never intended to get himself involved in such a girly enterprise. The 38-year-old Texan's own fairy tale began once upon a time at Oklahoma City University, where he had one desire: to be a sportscaster, calling games for the Dallas Cowboys. While working as the weekend sports anchor at an Oklahoma station in 1999, he got a job offer at a Dallas affiliate but at the same time, he was invited to audition in L.A. for the horse-racing network TVG. Though he'd never been to L.A. (''I had seen the movie Colors, and that was my impression of L.A. you sit in traffic and you get shot''), Harrison decided, at his wife's urging, to check it out. ''After the audition, I ended up on Manhattan Beach at sunset looking at the ocean,'' he says. ''All these guys were driving up in nice cars, taking off their suits and ties, and going surfing. I called my wife and said, 'That's it, we're moving out here.'''
Soon enough, the move was paying off with uncredited parts as a reporter in movies and on TV shows though the glamour didn't always live up to his expectations, particularly his first big-screen part in 2000's Bounce. ''You would've thought I was Robert De Niro, the way I told my friends I was in this movie,'' he says. ''I didn't realize Ben Affleck was really the star. You see his head and he's watching TV, and behind his head is a picture frame, and in that frame is my reflection on the TV.'' By the time he auditioned for The Bachelor in 2001, he was jaded enough not to get his hopes up about any Hollywood projects. And even when he landed the gig, he wasn't sure he wanted it. ''The only thing that had been done like this before was Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?'' Fox's controversial proto-dating series. ''My wife was like, 'Remember, we have to go to church and look people in the eye.' The only thing that made me not overthink it was that [The Bachelor was on] ABC. If it had been Fox... No offense to Fox, but you know what happens to shows on Fox.''
Harrison's straight-and-narrow persona helped class up a show that could've come off as trashy, and he soon became an integral part of the reality phenomenon. Fans have come to depend on him to guide them through the romantic turmoil when he didn't fly to Spain for a rose ceremony on The Bachelorette last season, the message boards were not a happy place. (Commented one distressed viewer on Harrison's EW.com blog, ''Why weren't you in Spain? You've become our in-house psychologist/host over the years and we need the insights each week when you put the Bachelorette/Bachelor on 'the couch.''')
Over the 13 cycles of the franchise in addition to five Bachelorettes—the show's popularity has ebbed and flowed. (The Bachelor's highest-rated installment was season 2 in 2003, which averaged 14.5 million viewers; the lowest was season 12 in 2008, with 7.5 million.) It was during one of those ebbs in 2007 that Harrison started seeking other jobs, looking for both a backup plan and a place where he could bring more of his sharp sense of humor to the screen. ''On The Bachelor, my opportunities to show my personality are pretty limited,'' he says. ''It's not a host-driven show. If this show ever becomes about me, we're in trouble.'' In 2008, he signed a deal with TV Guide Network to anchor its daily news show Hollywood 411, and he's since taken over the network's red-carpet coverage, as cohost (with Dancing With the Stars' Carrie Ann Inaba) and producer. ''It's as close to sports as you can get,'' he says of the awards-show gig. ''You're on [live], and you either succeed or you fail. I love that adrenaline rush.''
All of that comes second, however, to The Bachelor which surged back into the pop culture forefront in 2009, thanks to Bachelor Jason Mesnick's decision to trade in first choice Melissa Rycroft for runner-up Molly Malaney in front of 17.5 million stunned viewers in March. Given that ABC promptly renewed The Bachelor for this season and is planning a new Bachelorette in the summer, Harrison will be juggling two jobs for a while. Even with his expanded role at TV Guide Network, he insists he has no ambitions to be a host-turned-multimedia minimogul à la Ryan Seacrest. He'd rather just be a dedicated husband, father, and soccer coach to his kids, Joshua, 8, and daughter Taylor, 6. ''I love that I can coach the Crushing Cobras and the Strawberry Shortcakes on weekends,'' he says. ''If someone gave me all the money I needed and it meant I would never be on TV again, there would be a trail of dust.'' Let's hope that day never comes but if it does, it will be the most dramatic trail of dust...ever!
Read more of Chris Harrison's favorite moments, and get his behind-the-scenes Bachelor insight every Tuesday in his blog, exclusively on EW.com